The only writer in the New Testament to use the compound verb anastenazō is the author of Mark’s Gospel (8.12). He uses it in the narrative to describe Jesus’ response to the demand from the Pharisees that he show them “a sign from heaven” to demonstrate his status and authority. The writer says that in this action they are “testing (peirazontes) him” (8.11). Using the aorist active participle anastenaxas, the writer characterizes Jesus’ response to their demand as accompanied by “groaning” or “deep sighing” (Bauer, Danker, Arndt and Gingrich, 72; cf. blog article #100 for comment generally on Mk. 8:12). Whether the dative phrase tōi pneumati autou expresses instrumentality or agency or reference can be debated. The NIV (2011) translation “he sighed deeply” virtually ignores this phrase, treating it as an otiose, self-referential qualifier. The ESV (2016) reads “he sighed deeply in his spirit.”
But what does this word mean in this context and why does the writer describe Jesus’ response to the Pharisees’ demand in this way? The simple form of the verb occurs once in Mark’s Gospel at 7:34 (also in Romans 8:23; 2 Corinthians 5:2, 4; Hebrews 13:17; James 5:9). In that context the writer is describing how Jesus reacts as he heals a deaf and dumb person. NIV (2011) renders it as “with a deep sigh….” and ESV (2016) translates “he sighed.” These two English translations interpret the compound verb to express an intensification of the meaning of the simple form, adding the adverb “deeply” to reflect this intensification.
Jeffrey Gibson has questioned that this is what the writer of Mark intended by using anastenazō in this context (Bible Translator 38 (January 1987), 122-25). He argues, based on his review of occurrences of this verb with verbs of speaking in Classical Greek writers and the Septuagint, that it means “that Jesus was not suddenly overcome by exasperation, but by dismay.” He goes on to claim that it was not Jesus’ patience that was being tested, but his faithfulness. He also observes that in non-Markan contexts where this lexeme occurs with verbs of speaking, the speaker has acted in response to what he or she thought to be divine direction. However, their response has created an outcome that is demonstrably foolish or unnecessary (in the case of Croesus and Cleomenes as narrated by Herodotus). We can add to this list Philo’s description of Jacob’s reaction to Joseph’s demand (On Joseph 187) that he send his youngest son Benjamin to Egypt as a hostage: “Their father gave a deep groan (barutaton anastenaxas) and said, “Whom should I lament for first?” (See also Vita Adam et Evae 9.2.) Yet, pace Gibson, this element does not seem to be present in the case of Eleazar (2 Maccabees 6:30), Susannah (Susannah v.22), or Jacob. They are righteous and in situations where they have to choose between obedience to Yahweh or death or sexual abuse or threat to family, their response is described by this verb anastenazō. While they may experience dismay, it does not lead them to act faithlessly.
So what is the situation with Jesus according to Mark’s writer in this context? If Gibson is correct that verb in this context signifies “dismay,” at what is Jesus dismayed? And secondly, how does the presence of the dative modifier affect the meaning? In my view the situation is more complex than Gibson credits. First, the theme of the Jewish religious leaders’ rejection of Jesus begins in Mark 2. Their stubborn refusal to accept Jesus’ claims is nothing new when it surfaces in Mark 8. Something else in the narrative action motivates the writer to describe Jesus in this way. It is “the leaven of the Pharisees” (2:15). Second, Jesus’ obedience to the mission of Yahweh in the narrative has remained steady throughout the narrative. It seems unreasonable to see in this action of the Pharisees something new that triggers a crisis of confidence within Jesus or dismay that his obedience to Yahweh is resulting in his case a foolish or unnecessary outcome. In a few verses (8:31) Jesus declares in the narrative that “it is necessary for him to suffer, be rejected by the Jewish leaders, to be executed and to rise again.” Third, Jesus is not yet under the control of the Jewish religious leaders, as is the case in all of the other examples cited. True, they are hatching a conspiracy to kill him (3:6), but this is not yet limiting Jesus in any significant manner.
I would argue that in Mark 8:12 the writer targets Jesus’ dismay not at his own destiny in the will of Yahweh, but rather at the outcome these Jewish leaders are creating for themselves as they reject Jesus’ claims (11:8-10). If they refuse to acknowledge him as Yahweh’s messiah, what part will they have in the fulfillment of Yahweh’s covenant promises in and through Jesus? As a result, Jesus experiences dismay at the impossible situation in which his Jewish contemporaries are setting themselves — opposing Yahweh himself.
I would also suggest that the dative phrase tōi pneumati autou does not describe Jesus’ internal reaction, but rather describes the agent or instrument that generates this dismay within him, namely “the Spirit that he possessed,” i.e., the Holy Spirit. I would suggest the translation “And experiencing dismay through the Spirit he possessed, he says….” Consider Jesus’ words in 3:28-30 that warn of dire consequences for those who fail to recognize the work of the Spirit in Jesus — something that these Jewish religious leaders are doing in their skeptical demand for a “sign from heaven.”